Opinion article

Every tool must be deployed to suppress outbreak

CEDA Chief Executive Melinda Cilento writes that Australia should take a more flexible and comprehensive approach to COVID-19 outbreaks that includes more widespread use of rapid antigen testing.  

This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 30, 2021.

As a Victorian, I did not immediately warm to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s call for “our” vaccines to head north. But as COVID-19 case numbers rise to yet another daily record of 239 in NSW on Thursday, it’s clear that cooler heads must prevail.

We must move past the state v state rhetoric and focus on getting vaccines to those at highest risk in this outbreak, wherever they are. The NSW decision this week to give doses from the rural and regional supply to year 12 students in Sydney hotspots is exactly the kind of flexible response we need. Other states that don’t urgently need doses for high-risk cohorts should do similar if they are serious about ensuring the Sydney outbreak doesn’t spread across borders.

We must comprehensively tackle COVID outbreaks using every tool available.

On that front, it is a relief to hear NSW plans to introduce rapid antigen testing for year 12 students when they return to school next month and is also considering introducing these tests in workplaces. It is well past time for Australia to augment its outbreak response with more rapid-testing options.

This will enable faster, cheaper, more accessible and more widespread testing and could be a first step to screen people for further testing using the “gold standard” PCR (polymerase chain reaction) diagnostic tests currently used. Rapid antigen tests are not as accurate as PCR tests and should not replace them, but should be used to screen people when there are widespread outbreaks such as in Sydney now.

Other countries are adopting similar approaches including Singapore, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Austria is asking school children to test themselves. Our outbreaks remind us that when there are many cases in the community, testing is the bridge we need until vaccination rates rise sufficiently. Rapid tests are just one way we can make it as easy as possible for people to do the right thing.

We must also redouble our efforts on ramping up the vaccine rollout, using clear, consistent and unified communication. This must include building effective grassroots, local campaigns that target those who most need to be vaccinated because of work and exposure risks, or health or financial vulnerabilities, wherever they live. We just need to make it as easy as possible to do the right thing. 

To that end, one key communications challenge posed by this virus is how to get trusted messages out to all communities, including the most vulnerable. Community groups such as ACOSS and the Red Cross have a well-established track record of breaking down barriers and translating policies into better outcomes for these communities.

While employers have been drafted into this fight, given they must protect workers and workplaces on the frontlines of the pandemic, we should also support and leverage the relationships of community groups and make sure they too have a seat at the table.

After weeks of lockdown in NSW, we continue to see high numbers of infectious people moving around the community. At least 88 of Thursday’s cases in NSW were in the community for all or part of their infectious period. NSW expects people to get tested and isolate until their results come through. This is a very difficult ask for people with casual and less secure employment. Wednesday’s announced increases to the federal Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment, and a supplement for people on welfare who have lost work, are a positive step.

But in addition to federal payments, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT all offer a specific payment of between $250-$300 for people who have to isolate after a test. Earlier this month, Ms Berejiklian indicated she was looking at a similar measure but has not gone down that path. NSW only offers the two federal payments – Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment and the COVID-19 Disaster Payment. Why not adopt a consistent approach across the states?

We have fallen behind on quarantine. We are lagging on vaccination rates. But Australia’s COVID-19 response can again become a model of best practice around the world if we tackle this latest wave – and future outbreaks – using every tool in the toolkit.

About the authors

Melinda Cilento

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Melinda Cilento is Chief Executive of CEDA, a company director, economist and experienced senior executive. She is a non-executive director of Australian Unity and Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia. Melinda is also a member of the Parliamentary Budget Office panel of expert advisors.

Melinda was previously a Non-Executive Director with Woodside Petroleum, Commissioner with the Productivity Commission and Deputy CEO and Chief Economist with the Business Council of Australia. Melinda has also previously held senior roles with the Federal Department of Treasury, Invesco and the International Monetary Fund.

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